The Power of Peacemaking

Shapeshifting for Justice

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Based on Isaiah 2:4. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

For far too many weeks, we have watched the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing loss of civilian life, destruction of the environment, and displacement of millions of people. Bombings of schools, hospitals, and suburban neighborhoods unfold continually on CNN, and we feel shocked, angry, incredibly sad, and powerless. President Zelensky has pleaded for Western Powers to protect them from Russian missiles through a no-fly zone. His request, and the entire situation, raises significant questions: Do we fight violence with violence, or demand a ceasefire and the continuation of diplomacy only?  How do we, as people of faith, advocate for both peace and justice under such terrible oppressive circumstances?

Isaiah lived in a time of war. Military conflicts were continual between Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. In chapter 2 verse 4, Isiah describes a future where everyone goes up to the mountain top to experience Yahweh.  And in the fullness of this relationship with God, the people turn their weapons into agricultural tools: swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Perhaps most importantly, they commit to training for war no more.

Isaiah’s vision of this future must have seemed absurd if not impossible at a time when nations or groups continually attacked each other for land, livestock, and power. Many scholars argue this vision is an eschatological one and not realistic behavior for humankind on its own. But today some people are choosing to turn their weapons into garden tools and train for war no more. It may seem absurd, and even unrealistic, to do this in a time of such heightened violence. But if we really know God, we will change our obsession with violence.

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It is time for us to wake up and pay attention to Isaiah’s vision, or we may lose not only our beloved community and our climate but also our entire world. What might it look like to implement this vision?  Shapeshifting is an ancient term that exists in epic poems, folk stories, and children’s literature, like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It is the ability to physically transform oneself or an object into another form by divine intervention. It calls us into both symbolic and concrete forms of conflict transformation.

Art in all cultures both critiques the status quo and expresses prophetic vision. Some artists influenced by their faith have responded to Isiah’s vision by literally melting and reforming weapons of our day into garden tools. Their craft brings a sense of urgency to the all-too-acceptable cultural narrative of violence. Disruptive Disciple Blacksmithing is a group in Michigan that is literally turning guns into plowshares and pruning hooks.  In another state, Rev. Cory Simon, a Methodist minister, took blacksmithing classes and made his own handgun into a hoe and spade for gardening. He belongs to a group called Raw Tools Network, which is engaged in disarming hearts as well as shapeshifting guns into garden tools. It takes gun donations, turns them into garden tools, and then sells them to support its work in dialogue, nonviolent training, and community garden projects. This is the practice of conflict transformation.

Photo: Welling Hall

Welling Hall is the Plowshares Professor of Peace Studies, Emerita, at Earlham College and served in that role for 31 years. When she retired, she studied with a metalsmith to learn how to beat swords into plowshares. She collected spent NATO bullet shells and melted them along with ground down combat knives to make a pair of beautiful and functional garden shears.  

For those of us who are not artists or blacksmiths, what other opportunities are there for shapeshifting?  How do we possibly make a dent in this military-industrial complex that reaps outrageous profits from gun sales around the globe, develops advanced nuclear weapons, and subcontracts war activities to private companies?  How do we shapeshift the U.S. Pentagon budget into public programs that build and sustain communities, particularly communities that have long suffered inequities and discrimination?

Both the plowshare and the pruning hooks are sharp instruments that cut first in order to enable growth later. The plowshare is the sharp blade at the bottom of the hand plow that cuts into the earth so it can then turn it over, making the soil ready for planting. Pruning hooks cut the branches of the tree to allow for greater fruit production. Thus, both tools are not passive but rather instruments of disruption to enable later growth. In the same way, peacemaking must critique, cut into, and disrupt the business of war-making before peace can prevail. Only then can shapeshifting or conflict transformation occur. 

In the past 20 years, the U.S. has invaded Iraq, led a 20-year war in Afghanistan, and participated in Yemen and Syrian wars. The U.S. Global Military Footprint includes over 750 overseas military bases, 200,000 troops overseas, and counterterror operations in 85 countries. The U.S. ranks highest in the world in military spending. Our Pentagon budget is three times larger than China’s military spending and 10 times greater than Russia’s. The U.S. spends more on its military budget than the next 10 countries' biggest spenders combined. In recent years the Pentagon budget was over 750 billion compared to the 9 billion Environmental Protection Agency’s budget. (Eliott Negin, It’s time to Rein in Inflated Military Budgets, Scientific American, 9/14/2020)

Part of disrupting is to ask who benefits from war? The Cost of War Initiative has documented that half of the U.S. military spending in 2019 was to private contractors, significantly increasing the cost of U.S. military operations. As a result, corporations have a significant lobbying influence on this budget, continually expanding our military-industrial complex. The first step is influencing our legislators to decrease our excessive military budget and shapeshift it into programs for economic and social justice.  If we do not speak out, our silence supports the production of weapons of violence and continues to perpetuate poverty and human suffering.  

Growing up in the Cold War we were taught to hate and fear the Russians. We practiced drills in elementary school where we hid under our desks to be safe if the Russians dropped an atomic bomb on us.  None of us understood that our method of defense, a small wooden desk, would not hold up against a nuclear bomb. We just did as we were told.  Since then, there have been some bright moments among people of faith and humanitarians disrupting this narrative. In 1946, Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi stated: “I regard the employment of the atom bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women, and children as the most diabolical use of science.” In 1947, Gandhi claimed, “he who invented the atom bomb has committed the gravest sin in the world of science,” and, “The only weapon that can save the world is non-violence.”  

Jewish physicist Joseph Rotblat, a refugee to the US during the Holocaust, reluctantly agreed to work in the Manhattan Project in order to develop an atom bomb before the Germans.  When he learned that the Germans abandoned their atomic research, he resigned, becoming the only conscientious objector of the Manhattan Project.  He spent the rest of his life working on complete nuclear disarmament, and he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In 1961 Women Strike for Peace organized marches across the country to demonstrate against nuclear weapons.  Their slogan was, “End the Arms Race: Not the Human Race.” The Nuclear Freeze movement around the globe in the 70s and 80s was successful influencing many governments to reduce their nuclear arsenals. As a result of this movement, in 1987 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that proposed to eliminate all intermediate and short-range ground-based missiles and launchers from Europe. And it almost happened!

In 2005 over two hundred people, of all faiths were arrested during a prayerful vigil at the Nevada nuclear test site, in observance of the 60th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima. Executive Director of Pax Christi USA, Dave Robinson, said was an opportunity to bring together people of faith with varied strengths. He said the story of the nuclear age was “one missed opportunity after another.” Only within the specter of mutually assured destruction, he claimed, has “our society found peace -- a twisted version of shalom.”  It was also at this gathering that Rabbi Arthur Waskow led prayers, called for the end of nuclear weapons, and was arrested. In 1983 he founded the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, initially to address the threat of nuclear weapons through a Jewish lens. 

In his Statement on the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6, 2020, The Dalai Lama wrote, “When conflicts arise, they should be settled through dialogue, not the use of force. We need to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, with the ultimate aim of a demilitarized world … War means killing. Violence leads to counter violence. We need to put an end to combat and the production of weapons and construct a more peaceful world.”

Other than these memorial services, most communities of faith have been silent on nuclear arms, pretending that an increasing arsenal of weapons are not a threat and are essential to deter war. We just do as we are told. We are still hiding under those wooden desks. Scientists believe that right now we are more at risk of nuclear war than ever. Citizens of Europe are very afraid.  So afraid that they are emptying pharmacies of iodine tablets in case of nuclear fallout from the war in Ukraine.

But we are not without hope. Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Ardeth Platte spent many years educating, organizing, and engaging in acts of nonviolence at the Pentagon and at many nuclear war sites throughout the U.S. Between the two of them they spent 15 years in jail because of their civil disobedience, Thanks to their disruption, along with that of many others, enough countries signed the UN Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons in January 2021 to ban these weapons on a global level. There is still work to be done on ratification, compliance, and urging the U.S. and other nations to sign on. The funding of these highly expensive and dangerous weapons can be shapeshifted into plowshares and pruning hooks. This is the work of conflict transformation.  

Dr. Martin Luther King, throughout his ministry critiqued the military expansion, particularly nuclear weapons, indicating that nonviolent action had to include disarmament. When asked about the use of nuclear weapons in 1957, he responded, “I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned … The principal objective of all nations must be the total abolition of war. War must be finally eliminated or the whole of mankind will be plunged into the abyss of annihilation.” In a speech in 1959 to the War Resisters League, Dr. King questioned, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice where all people, (Negro and White) are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?” In an article, “Pilgrimage to Non-Violence,” King stated, “The church cannot remain silent while mankind faces the threat of being plunged into the abyss of nuclear annihilation. If the church is true to its mission, it must call for an end to the arms race.”

Author James Baldwin, a key speaker at a disarmament conference in the ’60s, was asked why he was there. In response, he said, “Only those who would fail to see the relationship between the fight for civil rights and the struggle for world peace would be surprised to see me here. Both fights are the same … Racial hatred and the atom bomb both threaten the destruction of mankind as created free by God.”  In his book African Americans Against the Bomb, Vincent Intondi documents how Blacks in the U.S. saw the use of atomic bombs as a racial issue, claiming that huge levels of public funding were used to build nuclear arms instead of improving impoverished communities. He also made the connection between arms production and the colonialism of Africans, citing the U.S. extraction of uranium in Belgian-controlled Congo.

Thich Nhat Hanh gave a series of talks to peace workers at Buddhist centers in 1985, that were published later in his book, Being Peace.  He taught, “Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation. Awakening is important. The nature of the bombs, the nature of injustice, the nature of the weapons, and the nature of our own beings are the same. This is the real meaning of engaged Buddhism.”

Peoples of all faiths are in a unique position to come down from our mountain top experience with God (Isiah 2: 2-3) and shapeshift our weapons of war into tools for diplomacy, human welfare, and Common Security.  It is essential to cut into the cultural narrative of war and transform conflict with tools of equity, justice, and peace. This means shapeshifting our public policy from weapons of violence to tools of justice.  This is the way we transform conflict and begin to move towards Isaiah’s vision.

To some, this may be an untimely or unrealistic message as we watch Russia bomb city after city in Ukraine, killing citizens and causing millions to flee from their homes. It is understandable that Ukrainians want to defend themselves and their country. They are proud people who want to be independent, with a commitment to peaceful co-existence with Russia. Their context is historically very complex, with internal conflict around allegiances to both Europe and Russia and the role of NATO in the region. But this war cannot be used to justify a permanent increase to the already-inflated military budget of the U.S. at the expense of its own citizens. (See William Hartung, Responsible Statecraft). Non-violent responses like sanctions, protests, economic boycotts, and continued diplomacy are the answer, not the escalation of war. And the U.S. and its allies are pursuing all of these.  Even Russian citizens are protesting at great risk: the woman on the Russian State TV show who walked behind the news anchor with an anti-war poster, and the courage of 20,000-plus Russians that have been arrested for demonstrating against this war, possibly facing 15 years in confinement.  And then there are the Ukrainian mothers who have set up a hotline for Russian mothers to call for information about their sons fighting in the war and provide accurate information about what is going on in Ukraine. Mother-to mother-diplomacy. Shapeshifting violence even within war zones.

Twelve years ago, I was in Kyiv visiting Ukrainian friends who were building their fragile yet growing democracy. It was soon after the Orange Revolution. They were shapeshifting a history of oppression and corruption into a new society. One scene remains fixed in my heart and mind. It was March 8th, International Women’s Day, and all the men in the street were coming home from work with flowers in their arms for their mothers, partners, or sisters.  It was snowing, the soft end of the day, and the golden light illuminated the red and yellow flowers everywhere in the streets. It was beautiful and peaceful.  Today I think of those men carrying weapons instead of flowers, and the women trudging in the cold with their children to cross the borders. But I also am moved to tears by unarmed Ukrainians standing in front of Russian tanks to block their advances into their towns, Ukrainian grandmothers yelling at armed Russian soldiers to go home, and even some Russian soldiers refusing to kill Ukrainians. Against all odds, these are examples of shapeshifting tools of violence into nonviolent tools for peace.

It is now up to those of us who have been to the mountain to put away our complacency and disrupt our oversized military budget through art, nonviolent protest, and influencing public policy. Turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks requires a disruption of our military-industrial complex so we train for war no more, or at least a lot less. It envisions a collective effort to abolish all nuclear weapons. At this moment, at this time, we cannot say we speak for racial and economic justice without engaging in Isaiah’s vision of shapeshifting tools of violence into tools that disrupt. Only then will we support our communities in producing all that brings forth life.

(This article is adapted from a sermon given by Judith Oleson, Boston University School of Theology, Marsh Chapel, March 16, 2022)


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